INTERVIEW WITH… SCOTTISH MENTAL HEALTH ARTS AND FILM FESTIVAL
As we’ve mentioned before, there are many issue-led festivals out there which encompass education and knowledge in particular areas. We’re extremely passionate about film being used as a springboard for starting conversations and exploration of a subject due to it being one of the most accessible mediums. So we are extremely happy to welcome both Richard Warden (Film Curator), and Gail Aldam (Festival Manager) from the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival on the blog. The festival happens from 1st – 19th October and there are many events from across the arts as well as screenings to go see, so please do check out their line-up. Now over to some of the folks behind-the-scenes…
Tell us a bit about your job, and what you do…
Gail: I started working for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival (SMHAFF) back in 2008 in its second year. Since then I’ve had various roles before taking over as Festival Manager in 2011. This is part of a wider events and communications role within the Mental Health Foundation, the lead partner in the Festival.
Richard: My involvement began with began as a post-screening panelist at the Renfrewshire version of the Festival a few years ago. Once you volunteer in Renfrewshire, there’s no going back! I became the film programmer for that region… and still am. Consulting on our International Film Awards last year led to taking on the Film Curator role for 2014.
You’ve been running eight years (and counting!), what’s been the most surprising thing for you since the concept of the festival became a real entity?
Gail: For me the most surprising and exciting thing is the level of engagement and support that we have had and continue to have from artists, activists, organisations and members of the public. In 2007, when the Festival started, the idea was for a weekend of films in Glasgow which would address people’s perceptions of mental health. In that first year it grew to a two week long Festival across Greater Glasgow and now we have a month long Festival with over 300 events in 17 regions of Scotland! We work with hundreds of individuals and organisations across Scotland and have annual recorded attendances of over 16,000. The Festival is considered one of the largest social justice events in the world and it has inspired similar Festival’s in Dublin, London, Detroit, Belfast, Lithuania, Greece and Finland. I think that part of the success of the Festival comes from a desire for a different way of engaging with mental health issues. Access to the arts, for audience members, creators and participants offers people the opportunity to express themselves and develop a deeper understanding of the issues.
Over the last 7 years the Festival has shown that arts and film are a powerful mechanism to create change, through art we have the power to both tackle the stigma associated with mental ill health and promote recovery. With this in mind, we have taken ‘power’ as our central theme for 2014 with a provocative programme that explores the nature of personal, political and social power, looking at the power dynamics in relationships; feelings of disempowerment associated with mental ill health; and the empowerment felt when participating in the arts.
SMHAFF covers all the creative areas from music, film, art, theatre, dance, literature… Have you seen a surge of mental health representation outside of the festival, and is it all good?
Gail: One of the objectives of the Festival is to make connections between organisations and individuals who might not otherwise work together and many of these partnerships created during the Festival period have led to year round programmes of work. A good example of this comes from Rod Jones of Idlewild who, as a result of work with the Festival on the successful Music Like a Vitamin events, now leads a youth music mentoring project in Wester Hailes, supported by the Mental Health Foundation. There are many other inspiring stories like this that have come out of the Festival and we see more and more partnerships and connections being made each year.
We are also working to expand our impact year round, taking SMHAFF in to other Festival’s, allowing us to engage different audiences in discussions about mental health. Last year we had a SMHAFF event during Glasgow Film Festival and we hope to increase our reach in this coming year.
There is also a great deal of work that explores mental health themes within other arts Festivals across Scotland and beyond and we often use the Festival as a platform to highlight these events. We welcome different interpretations of mental health and a lot of the work we feature is provocative, challenging people to think about mental health in a different way.
Being an issue-led film festival, do you find people arrive with a pre-conception of what to expect?
Gail: I think that people are sometimes surprised at the range of work that is included in the Festival. We don’t just explore the obvious links to mental health and a lot of the work we features challenges people to think about mental health in a way that they might not have previously. This leads to very interesting post event debates and discussions where we invite people to ask questions, comment on what they have seen and engage with difficult issues in a save environment. This is something people don’t often get the chance to do. Also, I think a lot of people are surprised that we don’t just focus on mental ill health but look at mental well-being more generally.
Richard: As a programmer, I appreciate the freedom to take chances with what we present. Some people assume SMHAFF to be a ‘politically-correct’ event, whereas the reality has us showing work that asks hard questions about many things, including the medical establishment. There’s no official line at play – just a desire to raise awareness and to fight stigma while screening great films.
When does all the work start for the festival, and what’s the first job?
Gail: The work for the annual Festival starts as soon as the previous event finishes at the end of October, and often even earlier than that as we start getting expressions of interest from people that would like to be involved. The first step is to start discussions with all those involved annually and people getting involved for the first time. As I mentioned earlier, we also have a year round programme of events that are linked to the Festival, planning for these takes place all year round.
Why do you think people should come as a punter to SMHAFF?
Gail: Mental health stigma is something that is unfortunately still prevalent in our society; we want to encourage audiences to come along to SMHAFF events and help us to create a movement for a change in attitudes. With 300 events across Scotland covering everything from film and theatre to music, visual arts and workshops there really is something for everyone. We aim to make our Festival as accessible as possible with many events taking place outside of traditional arts venues, in addition many of the events are free and low cost. We are also lucky to be supported by very talented artists, musicians and film makers and people should come because they will experience great art. Each year, the festival aims at presenting the largest, widest and most thought-provoking collection of art exploring the concepts of mental health and social justice.
Richard: The element of surprise! Many of the films we show wouldn’t end up on the big screen here otherwise, or do so very rarely. There are UK and Scottish premieres in the mix, which is very exciting. And even if one can find the work elsewhere, there’s the ‘bonus material’ of post-screening discussions Gail mentioned earlier – these conversations are known for their vitality.
Could you let us in on any things coming up in the programme this October?
Gail: More than ever this year’s Festival aims to provide a platform for those who are oppressed and marginalised and to get their messages out to a wider public audience, and the programming across Scotland really reflects that:
The Festival will kick off with Moving Minds at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, a multi arts event exploring and celebrating diversity and wellbeing in our community.
Out of Sight / Out of Mind, last year’s incredibly striking and provocative exhibition returns to venues across Edinburgh and will feature works from artists with lived experience of mental ill health.
The Assessment sees the return of the artist/activist the vacuum cleaner and explores how madness is defined and invites you to delve into your own mind.
We have teamed up with Luminate: Scotland’s Creative Ageing Festival on Let Me Stay, a theatre piece that visits community venues in the Highland’s and Argyll, exploring the impact of Alzheimer’s on family relationships.
Ageing and dementia are also explored in Tomorrow, a new work from Vanishing Point that will show at the Tramway at the beginning of October.
Status Anxiety a bold hip-hop theatre piece will tour across Scotland during the Festival, exploring and challenging the way social media has changed our lives.
We are delighted to have Shetland and Orkney as our newest areas this year with one man show The Life and Nearly Death of Riley touring to venues on the Islands.
Voices of War in the stunning backdrop of Edinburgh castle will explore the voices of world war one its centenary year.
Our first ever Writing Awards in partnership with Bipolar Scotland honours the very best of the entries to the competition, all exploring the theme of power.
And for my final highlight, we are delighted to bring DJ Derrick May, all the way from Detroit, to our SMHAFF closing party at the Art School.
Richard: This may come off as a cop-out, but it’s genuinely tough to choose from amongst the many exciting films found in the programme. I love the fact that we range from showing proudly local work such as Everybody’s Child from Muirhouse’s Garry Fraser to far-flung animations, documentaries and dramas that are International Film Award winners.
What’s your advice to someone who gets a rejection from a festival?
Gail: We get hundreds of entries to our film and writing competitions in the Festival and we can only honour a small amount of these at the awards ceremonies. For those that aren’t shortlisted we would advise that there are many other ways to engage with the Festival and to give your work a voice, If your work isn’t success there are many more ways to get involved such as volunteering at our events, attending our workshops, open mic nights etc we have a number of open mic nights and screenings which showcase a variety of work.
Richard: As a filmmaker myself, I’ve had to learn to not let festival selections go to my head, and to not let rejections devastate me. Regarding the latter, it’s often not about the quality of the work, but more about what engages and moves the particular people making selections. I would encourage all creatives to keep creating no matter what – that’s most important thing.
Tell us the best and worst part of your job.
Gail: I don’t think there is a part of my job that I don’t enjoy, but the planning stages in July and August things can get very hectic. The fact that we work with so many people across the country means that pulling such a large programme together can be challenging, however seeing it all come together after months of discussion and planning is very exciting. Although very busy, the Festival period is my favourite time of year. Engaging with audiences at events and hearing about what the Festival means to those that take part is incredibly rewarding. It is also a great feeling when audiences engage with the Festival online, we have seen a massive increase in this sort of engagement over the past few years.
Richard: The worst part is becoming attached to something that doesn’t work out for the festival for any number of reasons. For example, there was a film I loved that I thought was absolutely perfect for us, and the director was very excited about it playing as part of SMHAFF, but the timing wasn’t quite right for the distributor – maybe next year! Conversely, when we manage to land something I know will be a ‘hit’ with our audience, prompting all sorts of worthwhile discussion, it’s extremely satisfying.
Share with us one of your favourite films and tell us why you like it…
Gail: Pe & Fu, our jury prize winning film from last year stands out for me. I will let the film speak for itself:
Richard: Who am I to argue? It had Filmhouse in tears…
Thanks to Richard and Gail for taking the time to speak to us about SMHAFF. We highly recommend having a look at their line-up and going along, there is such a wealth of choice!
Richard Warden is a Canadian film producer based in Glasgow who regularly teaches on producing and production management. He has produced three feature-length films and four short dramas, along with having executive produced over a dozen shorts as a producer mentor. After programming for the Renfrewshire version of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival for a number of years, Richard is now the national Film Curator.
Gail Aldam has worked with the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival since 2007 in various different roles. Starting as an events volunteer, she then began working each year for the festival in communications and events before becoming the Festival Manager in 2011. Now she is Senior Events and Communications Office for the Mental Health Foundation where she works to support and develop high profile public events and campaigning activities, communication and PR for MHF Scotland work.